Liverpool’s below par Champions League campaign came to its conclusion on Tuesday, as Brendan Rodgers’ side could only manage a 1-1 draw with Swiss Champions FC Basel.
A potentially memorable occasion – compared with the famous 2004 night against Olympiacos – left fans frustrated as Liverpool could only muster up an encouraging performance in the final 20 minutes on Tuesday night. Why? We’ll never know.
Brendan Rodgers and his team knew what they needed to do. A win would have given them a welcoming place in the last 16 for next Monday’s draw, anything less and they faced elimination either to the Europa League or out of European competition completely. Yet it seemed to take an eternity for Liverpool to look genuinely threatening on Tuesday evening.
Liverpool began the night in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, with lone and remaining fit striker Rickie Lambert up front and Steven Gerrard in his new-found position as a central attacker. Since Rodgers has altered his position from defensive to offensive, glimpses of the Steven Gerrard from last season are beginning to surface, but the players around him are simply not producing when it matters.
Raheem Sterling is beginning to show that his personal success was hugely assimilated in that of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge’s last season. There is no doubt that he is a huge talent, but the reliance on his shoulders proves what little depth Liverpool allow themselves to have.
£100 million spent, yet only two players brought in to the club during the summer started. That in itself suggests Rodgers has little faith in his new signings, or believes they weren’t quite up to the occasion. Lazar Markovic, Alberto Moreno, Adam Lallana and Emre Can began the night soaking in the rain on the Anfield bench, yet I personally believe that all three had strong cases to start. I’m not doubting their replacements’ talent, but the aura of Rodgers’ team suggested that he wanted to play it safe rather than take a risk, which proved to be a bad move for Rodgers, whose position will surely come under scrutiny from the fans.
I would analyse Liverpool’s first 45 minutes, but it in truth wouldn’t be worth the effort. Fabian Frei finished a smooth Basel build-up, as they took the game by the scruff of the neck and went in to the break a goal to the good. That remained the only noteworthy event of the first-half, as a blunt Liverpool conceded possession on countless occasions and never looked like threatening the Swiss defence.
Following the break, Rodgers made a double switch, bringing on Moreno and Markovic for Lambert and Jose Enrique, effectively leaving the Reds with a six man midfield. On paper it appears to be a negative alteration, but on the pitch Liverpool looked refreshed and laid the foundations for a memorable night at Anfield to add to many others.
The home side threatened and eventually had the majority of possession, but lacked the quality to finish their chances. If it wasn’t for a typical Gerrard free-kick in the 81st minute, Liverpool would have left empty handed. Liverpool could have threatened all evening and still fail to score enough, which throws their season expectations up in the air. Lazar Markovic, who is one of Liverpool’s current few quality attacking players, was at the centre of a very controversial red card decision, which will be discussed for weeks on end and certainly didn’t help their cause.
FC Basel deservedly claimed a precious point which sends them through to the last 16 alongside Real madrid, who won all six of their group matches. The 2000 strong travelling Swiss fans, who never stopped singing throughout the game, were duly rewarded. The Basel fans showed up the home faithful, who were discouragingly subdued for the large part of the match until the remaining 20 minutes, when they finally began urging on their team to do the unlikely. It’s very tough to get tickets for fixtures like this, with droves of supporters coming from abroad snapping them up – who are sadly not as in touch with the club on a vocal scale compared to local fans. Still, the Kop were largely silent, despite the teams need for support throughout the game.
Liverpool can’t rely on the ‘transitional’ excuse as we enter mid-December. The Reds have an intense derby at Old Trafford on Sunday and Brendan Rodgers could not have wished for a more pressurising task to get Liverpool’s season on track after the previous four months. Lose on Sunday and Rodgers will have plenty more to answer for.
Manchester United have taken maximum points in the last five games and, despite a pitiful performance at Southampton on Monday, signs of the jigsaw finally piecing together under Louis van Gaal are starting to show. A win over Liverpool would seal the stamp on an encouraging first-half of the season.
Liverpool, on the other hand, go in to the game on Sunday with expectations in stark contrast to the corresponding fixture in March, when they ran out 3-0 winners. They not only lack the talent they had, but the odds are stacked against them with United now favourites to snatch the points in a match that leaves many wondering what to think prior to kick-off.
Although, if Liverpool manage to grab an unlikely victory on Sunday, Rodgers would have bought himself plenty of time to resurrect an average season. After all, he’s the man behind their almost perfect season last year – of course along with Luis Suarez – so to put him in an over-whelming negative spotlight so early on is still a tad unfair. Unlike David Moyes at United, he needs to be given the rest of the season before heavy criticism becomes a necessity.
There is some consolation for Liverpool in their exit, with an automatic place in the Europa League last 32, where they could potentially face rivals Everton in the last 16. While the competition is, on paper, inferior to the Champions League, they will still face the pressure to perform well and progress to the later stages.
A top four Premier League finish seems to be a bit of a write-off presently, so Liverpool need a good cup run in either the Europa League, League Cup or FA Cup, where they will play lower league opposition in AFC Bournemouth and AFC Wimbledon respectively over the coming weeks.
From now until February, it’s ‘squeaky-bum time’ for Liverpool – not just Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling – the whole team need to stand up and be counted.
Who deserves a place in the starting line-up on Sunday? Have your say below.